‘At 52, I abandoned everything, every friend, every family member’: the top official who escaped Scientology
Mike Rinder was so entrenched in the “aristocracy of Scientology” that Tom Cruise gave him birthday presents – a fancy watch and a set of Bose headphones. He earned promotion after promotion within the Sea Organization, a sort of executive order, was flown around the world and entrusted with taking Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley on a private tour of the Los Angeles museum devoted to Scientology’s founder, L Ron Hubbard. But after more than 45 years in the notoriously secretive church – which he now regards as “a mind prison” – he broke out.
Fifteen years on, he has written a book about his time inside. Some of the details are eye-watering, but what Rinder, 67, really hopes is that A Billion Years: My Escape from a Life in the Highest Ranks of Scientology will act as a rescue operation for his two adult children who remain in the church.
Before Scientology took up all his time and energy, Rinder enjoyed reading Wilbur Smith novels, and his own book starts like an adventure story. In 2007, he walked out of the church’s office in central London and ducked into a doorway. He was 52. He carried £200 in cash, a credit card and his passport. As a church executive he had pursued people who tried to leave, so he knew what to expect. “I needed to get out of sight, remove the batteries from my phones, use only cash and stay on the move,” he says.
When he was certain that he wasn’t being followed, he caught the tube to the National Portrait Gallery, where he sat on the grass outside and let his heart rate slow to its regular beat. “I went OK, now what? What am I going to do? For the first time that I could remember, I wasn’t answerable to anyone.”
Rinder, who grew up in Adelaide, Australia, with his brother and sister, was five years old when a neighbour introduced his parents to Scientology. During his high school years, the family relocated to England for months at a time so they could study at Hubbard’s Sussex base. They visited the National Portrait Gallery together, but that’s not why Rinder gravitated there. “It’s a place I’d been to mostly on my own,” he says.
He ambled through the galleries and when he finally came out, he knew what to do. He bought cheap clothes, ditched his suit and found a B&B near Victoria station. Two days later, he flew back to Florida, and made contact with other former Scientologists who helped him slowly begin his new life.
Rinder says he plotted his escape for only three days before leaving. But it must have taken more than a few days to undo decades of belief. After all, he was sufficiently immersed to be convinced of an origin story that involves Xenu, the head of the Galactic Confederacy, shipping humans to Earth, sticking them in volcanoes and dropping bombs on them. Rinder had lived in church quarters, took meals in its military-style canteen, and worked for at least 14 hours a day, seven days a week for a stipend of $50 a week. How did he begin to acknowledge transgressive thoughts, given that he had been trained to understand them as signs of a “reactive mind”, as something to be eradicated?
He says it was in the years after David Miscavige, the current leader, became head of Scientology in 1987, following Hubbard’s death, that things started happening to “shake my certainty”.
In the book, Rinder writes that he was physically assaulted by Miscavige. Other punishments for perceived “unhandled evil intentions” or for perceived alleged failings at work ranged from cleaning a sewage retention pit to wearing a mask made from a paper plate and being taunted by a ventriloquist’s doll built in his own image. At other times, employees were made to jump fully clothed into a swimming pool and “commit our sins to the deep”, Rinder says.
He says worst by a long way was the year or more that Rinder spent in a building known as “the Hole” at the church’s international base near Hemet, California. He was initially sent there to explore his subversive intentions, though at the time he didn’t have any, and then again, when as director of the Office of Special Affairs, he failed to prevent the BBC show Panorama from airing a programme on Scientology.
Here he lived under 24-hour guard, in a sort of prison camp for fallen Scientology executives, with no access to the outside world and no explanation of what crime had earned the placement. He suffered violence and he inflicted it on others. “It was part of the culture. Anyone who didn’t do it was subjected to discipline.” It was his removal from the Hole for a London mission that gave him his chance to escape.
Remarkably, even after that, Rinder continued in his faith, identifying as a Scientologist while he worked as a car salesman, his first job on the outside. It was really only that he wanted Miscavige to leave.
So if Hubbard were still alive today? “I would probably still be there,” he says. He still sounds excited when he recalls being appointed Hubbard’s special “watch messenger” in 1978, where orders ranged from telling the cook that Hubbard wanted chicken for dinner to smelling the laundry, which had to be rinsed seven times and aired outside to ensure it was odourless. “I mean, there is a very limited number of people on this Earth that have ever done that,” he says of the position.
The funny thing is that now that he is out and his faith has lost its grip, Rinder still doesn’t seem very free. He thinks he is surveilled, the object of private investigators’ interest. And although he says he doesn’t care, he keeps “a little bin” indoors in case his refuse is ransacked.
Whistleblowing activities account for about 60% of Rinder’s working life now (the other 40% is spent installing audiovisual equipment in the business of another ex-Sea Org member who has also written a book about Scientology). Rinder has contributed to countless documentaries about Scientology, including Leah Remini’s Scientology and the Aftermath. He co-presents a podcast with her, too. He has a post-Scientology blog. His closest friends are former Scientologists, as is his second wife, Christie Collbran. In a sense, he is a professional former Scientologist.
“What a job title that is!” he exclaims.
Doesn’t he want to be rid of Scientology altogether? “I don’t think that I will ever be able to shed this particular job. People contact me every single day asking for help.” Besides, he says, he wants to give his older two children the chance “to think for themselves”.
When he was 17 or 18, Rinder joined the Sea Org, the prestigious order within Scientology whose members fill the church’s management roles. He signed the organisation’s standard “billion-year contract”, designed to encompass all of his futures (since Scientologists believe in life after life; Hubbard told him he had probably run planets before). His ex-wife Cathy signed the same. In time, so did their children, Taryn and Benjamin.
It is fair to say that this setup fostered in Rinder a skewed idea of parenting. He became a father in his 20s but rarely saw his children. Back then, Rinder says, babies were handed over a few days after birth to Sea Org nurseries, where they were cared for seven days a week, from morning till midnight.
“I’m not saying I was a good parent,” he says. “I’m saying the exact opposite. I was a Sea Org parent.”
How old are they now? “It’s hard for me to remember,” Rinder says. “Taryn was born in 1978 and it is now … 2022 … So she is 44. And Benjamin was born in nineteen-eighty … like two, or three?” The memory lapse is “sort of embarrassing. But, you know,” he says, “they’re not exactly in my life any more.” After his escape, he wrote to Cathy to ask her and the children to join him on the outside and she wrote back: “Fuck off.”
In Scientology, when a family divides into believers and nonbelievers, disconnection is a common and painful experience. Taryn, Benjamin and Cathy have all released videos in which they claim Rinder abandoned the family when he left Scientology. His eldest children have published an open letter, disowning him – which rather undercuts Rinder’s explicit aim in writing, to reach out to his children. “A book for an audience of two,” he calls it.
Will they even have seen it? “It would be very difficult. I’m sure that they have been told: ‘It’s full of lies, blah blah.’” He didn’t send them a copy. “That would have been a waste of two books.” They would never have reached their recipients, he says.
Now that he and Christie, whom he married in 2013, have a 10-year-old son, Jack, Rinder has experienced a new kind of fatherhood. “I get up every morning and get his breakfast, I prepare his lunch and I drive him to school… We go out to eat, we go to the park, we ride our bikes … We talk about all sorts of stuff,” he says.
As a Sea Org member, he had no access to a loving family life. His first wife is barely mentioned in the book; it seems amazing they produced children, so rarely do their paths appear to cross. Similarly, Rinder’s parents are scarcely namechecked. Tragically, Rinder and Cathy lost a third baby to sudden infant death syndrome – or in the words of Miscavige’s wife, who broke the news, the baby “dropped her body”. In accordance with the church’s beliefs, Rinder responded by sitting with an auditor (a Scientologist charged with emotion-checking another) “to run out the loss”.
The process may have worked a little too well, because the book skims over his baby’s death in a page and a half. Although silences and omissions are understandable, given the limits of his life at the time, the book doesn’t really offer a more nuanced perspective on these losses and estrangements given the distance, and I wonder whether Rinder is still in the process of freeing himself. His only “therapy” has been conversations with other former Scientologists. There is a sense of a huge emotional backlog.
Did he feel love for his children while he was in the Sea Org? “Yes … you can never take away the fact that your biological children are something special to you.” With Jack, however, it is “not even remotely similar. Not even remotely.”
In some ways, the book is Rinder’s attempt to parent Taryn and Benjamin, too; a chance to hold his side of that conversation at least. “Here’s what’s important to me. Here’s my life. Here are the things that I went through. Like all that time you didn’t see me, where was I?”
But how well can a one-sided conversation with children really go? The church of Scientology sees the book as “a self-aggrandizing ‘memoir’” and “a compendium of gross exaggerations and provable lies”. It accuses Rinder of family betrayal and callous treatment of his ex-wife and children. Isn’t Rinder’s main aim really to bring down Miscavige and Scientology, which he insistently refers to with a lower case “s”, in a sort of grammatical emasculation?
“I harbour hopes that the bubble in which [Taryn and Benjamin] live may eventually be burst,” he says. “And that by dismantling the organisation around them they may wake up or see something that they haven’t been able to see when they are in such a controlled environment.”
“Whether you’re in a cult or a bad relationship, or a job you hate, you can always change your life,” he says. “If I could do it at 52 years old and walk out the door and abandon everything I had, every friend, every family member, no money, no job, and start afresh, pretty much anybody can do it.”
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November 17, 2022 at 11:07AM